Looking at Christine Brown’s career achievements, one would assume that she grew up interested in STEM and was a stock market prodigy. Most people would be shocked to learn that she had never independently placed a trade until about four-and-a-half years ago when she joined the fledgling trading and investing app company Robinhood. Brown joined Robinhood as a product manager back when less than 100 people were working in the company. Today, the company has grown to more than 22 million users, and Brown serves as the VP of product operations and crypto chief operating officer. Recently, I connected with Brown to learn about her phenomenal rise through the ranks at Robinhood, as well as how she is paving the way for future female leadership in finance.
Growing up, Brown says, money was never discussed in her household. “I think like a lot of families, money was super taboo for us,” she says. “It wasn’t something that we talked about at the dinner table. It wasn’t something that I ever remember being in a conversation with my parents.”
Brown did, however, have a unique relationship with math and technology, thanks to her father, an engineering professor. “Most of my friends’ parents would say, ‘Oh, you have to do these chores, or you have to clean your room before you go out and do these normal teenage things,” she says. “My dad would sit me down at the kitchen table with a sheet of derivatives and say, ‘You can go out when you solve all these derivatives.’” Through this unique approach, her father organically developed Brown’s problem solving and math skills. But even with that type of household influence, Brown did not focus her college studies on a STEM field. Brown says her journey into technology was a very roundabout one.
Brown’s early experience with finance was very similar to those of Robinhood’s customer base. “The market was just something that felt really inaccessible and not created for me,” she says. “It meant that you had to have a lot of savings or this huge kind of wealth to invest. That just hasn’t been where I’ve been in my life or my financial journey.”
However, after joining Robinhood in 2017, and successfully building their self-clearing platform, Brown gained a tremendous amount of insight into the financial market. “All of the intricacies after a trade is made, what actually happens? How do you come to actually own that share of that stock that you’ve purchased?” she says. “While I learned about all this, I discovered two critical things: First, the technology was really old and created years before I was even born.” For Brown, this archaic technology hindered innovation and did not take advantage of the new technology in the market. Secondly, she says, the entire process needed to be aligned throughout the company, as well as trusted by their customers. Brown notes that transparency and trust is sometimes taken for granted, which is a mistake. “Unlike in a free economy like ours, where we can have that fundamental trust, there are a lot of places in the world where you might not wholly believe in the government’s transparency or in the entity supporting the market,” she says.
As she learned more about the nuts and bolts of the finance industry, Brown became very interested in crypto. “Crypto feels like an alternative, which solves both of those two problems of the outdated technology and the transparency side of things,” Brown says. “When there was an opportunity to step in and really support a crypto business, I was excited to take the challenge and immediately fell in love.”
According to Brown, crypto is creating a more democratic financial system. “Crypto was really developed to provide everyone a secure decentralized currency, and at its core, it is all about equality and access,” she says. “That principle really resonated with me and supports Robinhood’s founding mantra to democratize investment access for all. For me, Robinhood isn’t trying to reach the crypto expert insider; we already have their attention. Instead, we are trying to reach the investors who are curious or even maybe a little skeptical of crypto. You don’t have to have an in-depth understanding of every single facet of crypto to get started with us.”
For women investors who often feel unwelcome in these traditional financial spaces, Robinhood’s crypto platform is a safe space. “I was fortunate in terms of my education and my work opportunities, and even with that, the stock market didn’t feel reachable to me,” Brown says. “In general, the research shows that women face real systemic barriers to investing. Women feel less empowered to invest, whether it’s in the traditional stock market or in crypto. So, for crypto, the barrier of entry is even higher because it’s pitched as this new cutting-edge technology.” Instead of dismissing crypto because ‘it’s new,’ Brown’s approach is to flip it around as a positive. Crypto is new for everyone, so it’s actually a more level playing field. “Robinhood introduces women to crypto in a way that doesn’t fit a kind of ‘tech bro’ or ‘Bitcoin bro’ culture.”
Unlike some other complicated crypto platforms, Brown describes Robinhood’s product as more intuitive and customer-centric in terms of product design and learning tools: “We are building our product every day to fit the needs of the everyday investor and not institutional traders. I think you can see that in some of the recent launches or releases that we’ve had. For example, recently we announced recurring investments, which lets a user choose the amount, choose a timeframe and set up automated investments over time.” This type of feature coupled with all of their educational resources demystifies and simplifies the process and “makes the barrier to entry, a little bit lower,” Brown says.
Robinhood’s focus to develop and create products that cater to the female investor starts within the leadership team. “The crypto leadership team has a strong set of women across all of our functional groups, from our first product lead to our first finance lead to our designer to engineering managers and to myself,” she says. “We have this powerful internal group of women leaders who bring their perspectives to the creation and development of our products every step of the way.”
Before her Robinhood tenure, she got to know many different types of tech companies, from small start-ups to very large and well-known global brands. For Brown, her gender did not impact her experience or opportunities at Robinhood. In order to succeed at Robinhood, she says, the winning formula is to have the skills to “break down problems to their fundamental parts and solve them. From there, you realize that gender is not a component part to success here. I have felt incredibly supported and have had an amazing peer group throughout my time at Robinhood.”
“I would say that being a woman in tech, I’ve had experiences prior to Robinhood that were difficult to navigate,” Brown continues. “At one point, I went back to school and got my master’s degree in computer science. I remember distinctly that we had to introduce ourselves online in one class. I had to scroll through over 50 introductions before I came to a woman’s name. When you don’t see people like yourself in an environment, it sometimes feels like you don’t belong or you’re going to be pigeonholed to be the UI designer during a group project versus taking on difficult technical implementations. At Robinhood, I really haven’t experienced any of that, which I love.”
When asked what advice she would give to her younger self as she tackled the derivatives her father gave her before playtime, Brown says, “I would tell myself to find great mentors and leaders that have a vision that you’re excited about and who will invest in you, and then, when you have the opportunity, to gladly do the same thing for others.”